Beatnik Beach

Monday morning! Another glorious week here in New Orleans, late July, and it didn’t really feel that obnoxious this morning when I went out to feed the herd. We shall see, shan’t we? Last night was lovely; we finished watching Ozark, which is sooooooo good, and so twisted; I do hope it’s going to be picked up for a second season. It doesn’t seem to be generating the same kind of buzz as other Netflix shows, like Stranger Things, and so I am not as confident it will be back. But I cannot urge you enough to watch it; it’s absolutely brilliant as a crime-driven narrative, the acting and writing are topnotch, and the cinematography is breathtaking. There’s also a particularly brilliant and heartbreaking gay subplot you don’t see coming, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen depicted on television (or on film, for that matter) before. I will blog more about Ozark, once I’ve let it digest a bit. I also reread Agatha Christie’s brilliant Endless Night yesterday; something else I am going to blog more deeply about, after letting it sit in my head for a bit. So, I have at least three blog entries brewing for the future: Ozark, The Great Gatsby, Endless Night.

I also spent time yesterday reading a bunch of my own short stories for editorial purposes (I think I may have solved some of the problems! Huzzah!) and I also read the other stories nominated for the Macavity Award, which was rather humbling.

As you, Constant Reader, are probably aware (and tired of hearing about), I was nominated for a Macavity Award for my short story, “Survivor’s Guilt” (from the Blood on the Bayou anthology, which I also edited, and the anthology itself was nominated for an Anthony Award). I am still reeling from the shock and surprise; one of the things I did after the Anthony nominations were announced was buy copies of the other nominated anthologies, and slowly started reading them, story by story. This weekend, I discovered that one of the other Macavity nominees, Paul D. Marks, had posted links to the Macavity nominated stories:

Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/stories/

Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP

Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/

I am not being self-deprecating when I say that I am in awe that I am somehow on the same list as these amazing writers and their amazing work. Not to mention this pedigree: Lawrence Block’s story won the Edgar; Joyce Carol Oates’ story won the Stoker, and Art Taylor’s won the Agatha. So, three of the finalists are already award winners; and both Art and Lawrence are also nominated for Anthonys this year, along with Megan Abbott’s stellar “Oxford Girl” from Mississippi Noir (which I read and loved);  Holly West’s “Queen of the Dogs” from 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback; and probably my favorite title of all time, Johnny Shaw’s “Gary’s Got a Boner”, from Waiting to be Forgotten. 

So, it’s not being self-deprecating when I say I don’t think I am going to win. (Obviously, I would love to, but seriously, being in this company is literally a dream come true for me.)

Naturally, I decided to go ahead and read the stories. (The Block/Oates links are to the books that contain their stories; I don’t believe you can read them for free anywhere. However, I already own the book with Block’s story in it, as it is an Anthony nominee for Best Anthology; I went ahead and bought the ebook for the Oates story–from her collection Dis Mem Ber.)

And so, yesterday I read them all. Wow. Seriously. Wow.

I thought Paul’s story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” would be set in Boston and have something to do with Revolutionary War history; I was wrong. The story is about the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles, and is about the shooting of the point of view character, with nods to LA’s hardboiled, noir past pretty much everywhere you turn around. The story is well written and very compelling; but the nods to the history of crime fiction and the greats who wrote about LA (there are also several nods to the exquisite film Chinatown as well). Check out this opening paragraph:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in midair, ghosts from another time.

Perfect. Paul is an accomplished author; his novel White Heat won the Shamus Award, and he has been nominated for a slew of others. I’ve ordered a copy of White Heat; can’t wait to read more of his work.

december 2016

Craig Faustus Buck’s story, “Blank Shot”, is set during the Cold War in East Berlin; a haunting, hard-boiled remembrance of a time when the world was gripped in a struggle between ideologies; communism vs. capitalism, and both sides had access to nuclear weapons. It was a time where espionage ruled; which spawned amazing novels and writers like Alistair MacLean, Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum, and John LeCarre. Buck’s story reminded me of those legendary giants.

Check out this opening paragraph:

His face hit the pavement hard. He tried to recall what just happened, but his thoughts wouldn’t sync. His head felt like he’d been whacked by the claw end of a hammer. Blood flowed into his field of vision, expanding on the ground before him. Must be his. Bad sign. He closed his eyes against a stab of afternoon sun reflecting off the crimson pool.

Saying anything more would be to give away too much; the problem with talking about short stories. Craig has also been honored extensively throughout his career; he has already been nominated for two Anthony Awards, a Derringer, and won the Macavity for Best Short Story. His debut novel, Go Down Hard,  was first runner-up for a Claymore Award–and he has been nominated for an OSCAR. Sheesh.

black coffee

Art Taylor is kind of indirectly responsible for both my nomination for the Macavity and my Anthony nomination for Blood on the Bayou. Art edited the Raleigh Bouchercon anthology, and he was the one who brought it up to me in Raleigh about who was editing the New Orleans one. I asked co-chairs Heather Graham and Connie Perry, who in turn asked me to edit it. So, thanks, Art! Art is an amazing writer, and an incredibly nice guy. He has won more short story awards, and been nominated more times, than just about anyone, really. Case in point: here is his short bio, from his website:

“Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine.”

And check out the opening to his “Parallel Play,” from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (which is also nominated for the Anthony for best anthology):

The Teeter Toddlers class was finally drawing to a close–and none too soon, Maggie thought, keeping an eye on the windows and the dark clouds crowding the sky.

Ms. Amy, the instructor, had spread the parachute across the foam mats and gathered everyone on top of it. The children had jumped to catch and pop the soap bubbles she’d blown into the air. They’d sat cross-legged on the parachute and sung umpteen verses of “Wheels on the Bus” and two rounds of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The routine never varied, the children’s delight never waned–at least until the time came to raise the parachute with its spirals of color into the air.

Now, how’s that for an opening? Can’t everyone relate to that scene, those images? Immediately we are taken into a normal, every day, everyone can recognize and relate to it scene at a child care center, with an impatient mom waiting for it to be over so she can race an oncoming storm home. Into that normal, every day scene–things are about to take a turn, obviously, a chilling turn that could have been imagined and written by domestic noir goddesses from Charlotte Armstrong to Margaret Millar to Dorothy L. Hughes. And what can be more frightening, more suspenseful, that a mother and child in danger? Genius, really. Art keeps the reader squirming with suspense and unable to stop reading from first word to last.

chesapeake crimes

I am a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates before. I met her briefly at a BEA sometime between 2001-2005, and thought she was very nice and very charming. She is also incredibly prolific; her output puts me to shame and also puts her up there with Stephen King. I know she’s been nominated for genre awards before, but I’ve never really thought of her as a genre writer. But her Macavity nominated story “The Crawl Space” won the Stoker Award for best short story this year, and the title of the collection it is from (Dis Mem Ber) sounds kind of genre. I bought the book yesterday, and started reading her nominated story.

Please. You make us uncomfortable.

You are always watching us. Like a ghost haunting us…

Though her husband had died seven years before the widow still drove past the house in which they’d lived for more than two decades.

Why?–no reason.

(To lacerate a scar, that it might become a raw-throbbing wound again? To lacerate her conscience? Why?)

The story, about a woman whose husband died and couldn’t then afford to keep their house, is creepy and macabre and incredibly sad all at the same time; it reminded me of some of Daphne du Maurier’s and Patricia Highsmith’s short stories–about a woman trying to deal with a tragedy in her life, unable to let go of her past, and possibly, just possibly, reaching the breaking point. It is exquisitely rendered, beautifully written; I am so going to read more of her work! I can also see why it won the Stoker.

oates eqmm

The last story was Lawrence Block’s “Autumn at the Automat,” which recently won the Edgar as Best Short Story of 2016. It’s from Block’s anthology, In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the contributors are a who’s who of the best in modern crime fiction, from Megan Abbott to Lee Child to Michael Connelly; Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Olen Butler–I mean, it’s like an anthology editor’s dream of authors to include. The book is also nominated for the Anthony for Best Anthology; I’ve not finished reading all the stories yet, only having read the exquisite Megan Abbott story and now, Block’s.

The hat made a difference.

If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s.

And with that, you are sucked into Block’s story, about a woman fallen on hard times eating at the Automat in New York City; a story that reminded me very much of one of my favorite short stories of all time, Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” and like it, this one is more of a character study than a crime story–although there is a quite brilliant crime in the story; one you don’t see coming that suddenly slaps you across the face–and has a neat little resolution that is eminently satisfying to the reader. Block is a master; I’m not as familiar with his work as I should be–that backlist! Just thinking about trying to get caught up on his work makes my head swim–but this story is an absolute gem.

hopper

So, there you have it. Five exceptional, exquisitely honed short stories, all nominated for the Macavity; all of them already recognized as exceptional; all of them written by masters of the art form.

And me. Somehow I managed to slip in there, too.

Thereby proving the adage that anything is possible.

 

I’ll Set You Free

This week was so crazy and intense. We were so busy at the day job this week; combined with a couple of not good nights of sleep, and by last night I was like the walking dead. I didn’t have time to blog, was too exhausted to even write when I had free time–my brain was even too fried to do much of anything other than read and watch some television before going to bed and trying to sleep. All of my muscles were tired and sore and aching; this morning before my first workout with Wacky Russian in three weeks I headed over early so I could spend some time stretching first–it was horrifying to me how tight my muscles were! But as I stretched, slowly and patiently, the muscles gradually began to stretch and loosen, knots being released, and as a result, the workout was great and I felt terrific afterwards. I know I am going to be tired later–but after my daily chores and errands, Paul and I are going to go see Spiderman Homecoming (which I originally wasn’t very interested in seeing–until I saw Tom Holland on Lip Sync Battle nailing Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and became a fan). Tomorrow I have to make a Costco run and we’re going over to our friend Susan’s to watch Game of Thrones and eat pizza.

Moral of the story: I need to stretch regularly. I have always been naturally flexible, and never needed to stretch much; but now that I am older my muscles tighten up without being stretched, so I need to do that on a fairly regular basis. And I should, anyway; because it feels amazing.

Last weekend I not only started rereading The Great Gatsby but also started reading William Faulkner’s crime short stories. They are collected into a book called Knight’s Gambit, and feature County Attorney Gavin Stevens. I always forget Faulkner dabbled in crime fiction from time to time; I was reminded by a piece on the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine website blog (“Something is Going On”), about how the magazine had published some of Faulkner’s short stories (“A Rose for Emily” would have been perfect for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, come to think of it), and I remembered my copy of Knight’s Gambit, never read, still in the TBR pile where it has been collecting dust for God knows how long. I’ve only had time to read the first story, “Smoke,” which was very Faulkner-esque. It wasn’t “A Rose for Emily” Gothic-good, but it was very Southern Gothic, very rural Southern; it was about the murder of a judge probating the will of a really awful man who owned two thousand of the best acres in the county and was estranged from his twin sons; and how Gavin figures out who the killer was and gets him to confess. It was kind of clever, and kind of reminded me of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which I read in my twenties and absolutely loved (another one due for a reread).

It poured while I was running my errands today; I got drenched getting into the grocery store, and while it had stopped raining when I was leaving, the parking lot was near the doors was under about three inches of water. So, my shoes and socks got soaked; which was deeply unpleasant, but hey–summer in New Orleans. It’s rained every day for the last two months, I think, and the humidity has been kind of intense.

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This was also a really good week for books; I got the new Rebecca Chance (Killer Affair) in the mail, as well as The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor and Geronimo Rex by Barry Hannah (a signed copy of the new Bill Loefhelm is waiting for me at Garden District Books; I intended to pick it up today but it was pouring, I didn’t have my umbrella and there was no place within two blocks to park, so I decided to put that errand off until someday next week). I’ve never read Barry Hannah other than a short story in college: “Love Too Long.” As Constant Reader is aware, my very first attempt at taking a writing class in college was a disaster; the instructor basically told me I’d never be published and “if being a writer is your dream, you need to find another dream.” Oy. Anyway, flash forward a few years and I started attending Fresno City College, a junior college in the Tower District of the city, to try to get my GPA back up to a point to where I could get accepted into the California State University system. Bravely, I enrolled in another creative writing class, and the teacher was a man named Sid Harriet. He required us to buy, for the class, two short story collections: Airships by Barry Hannah, and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver. He asked us to read the afore-mentioned Hannah story, as well as Carver’s “Neighbors.” Both stories were unlike anything I’d ever read before; and I decided to try to stretch myself creatively with the two stories I had to write for the class. The first story I wrote (seriously) was called “Bottles, Booze, and Bette Davis,” about a young couple having a disagreement about their commitment to each other in a diner–and their interactions with their waitress, Marge. It wasn’t a good story by any means, but when critiqued in class, it got some favorable comments and some good criticism, actually. Sid was very supportive, as well–and after my previous experience, this was a revelation for me. The second story was worse than the first, “A Single Long-Stemmed Red Rose” was the title; and it was an alternating point of view story about an encounter between a young college student cutting through a cemetery with a beautiful young widow. Again, it didn’t work; the points of view weren’t delineated enough to justify using this technique and the story itself didn’t work. Sid was highly enthusiastic about my attempt to push myself, though, and he was the one who recommended I read Faulkner’s  As I Lay Dying (which I did, and was blown away; that was, interestingly enough, when I became a Faulkner fan). You were allowed, as a student, to take the class twice; so I took it again the next semester and decided to take full advantage of the class by writing and turning in as many stories as I could–the minimum was two; which is what everyone did. Amongst the many stories I turned into that class were “Seminole Island” and “Whim of the Wind”, which everyone in the class loved; Sid even turned them both back to me with the note, “You need to send these out for submission.”

Manna from heaven for someone who hadn’t gotten any encouragement to be a writer since graduating from high school. I can even remember having a meeting in his office, and I told him what Dr. Dixon said. He just shook his head and said “that man shouldn’t be anywhere near students.”

The funny thing is, I would have told this story years ago but I couldn’t remember his name. Isn’t that awful? The person who, in addition to Mrs. Anderson from high school, was supportive of my desire to write, and recognized my ability was someone whose name I couldn’t remember until today. 

I bought the Barry Hannah novel because it was on a list of ‘essential Southern Gothic novels’; and I remembered reading that story back in 1983 in Fresno. And when I started writing this blog entry, I knew I had to talk about Sid, owed it to him really–and as I started typing his name popped into my head.

Funny how that works.

Okay, I am now going to make some lunch, and get this kitchen cleaned and organized; maybe I can get some work done on “A Holler Full of Kudzu” before we leave for the movie.

Have a great day, Constant Reader!